Am I a Sellout? Why I Work for an Adoption Agency

When I was asked to contribute to Gazillion Voices, I knew it presented a great opportunity to begin bridging the gap between adoptee advocates and adoption agencies. The impetus for this article was based on my interactions with adult adoptees outside of the office and the seemingly inevitable issue of why I work for an adoption agency in the first place. It’s been clear there are some misgivings for anyone attached to Holt (the adoption agency I work for), and while some of it’s justified, there may be more to the story than meets the eye. Or it’s entirely possible that people just don’t like me; I’ll let you be the judge.

When I meet adult adoptees for the first time, the conversation usually goes one of two ways.

Response #1: The eyes will widen and the corner of their mouths will rise gently resulting in a slight grin. This initial reaction signals to me that they don’t hate me and are, in fact, curious about what I do. Then, in a cautious tone, they’ll say, “Wow, that sounds like a great job. I mean, being able to help adoptees in their birth searches and working with youth adoptees at the camps. That sounds like a lot of fun. You know, I went to heritage camp when I was a kid. I made some great friends there.” This is always a pleasant interaction, and one that usually ends with me learning more about their childhood and walking away with a deeper understanding of the adoptee community. These are good interactions. I like them.

However, just as often, I’ll receive response #2: The brow will furrow and the lips will purse, resulting in a threatening demeanor. This initial reaction signals to me that they may hate me, or at least the idea of me (an adoptee sellout who’s drank the agency Kool-Aid), and are, in fact, about to give me a verbal beat down. Then, in an incredulous tone they’ll say, “How in the world can you work for an adoption agency? They’re the reason things are so bad! They keep raking in the cash without regard for us once we arrive in the States. We grow up! They’re not honest and they continue to withhold information from us!” This is not always the most pleasant interaction, but one that usually ends with me learning more about their childhood and walking away with a deeper understanding of the adoptee community.

Perhaps advocating for adoptee rights and getting paid by an adoption agency aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s be clear, my rationale sets on a large presupposition that international adoption can be done with sensitivity to culture, race, socio-economics and adoptee rights. To realize the promise of this vision, patience and effort are required and it will come at the expense of our lived experiences. However, I believe if all parties are open to discussion, a new type of adoption can emerge.

With that said, I’d like to speak to a couple of the biggest critiques of agency work and see if I can dispel some myths or at least take the dialogue to a different level. It’s no secret there’s a lot of money involved with international adoption. Our financial reports are open to the public and available on our webpage. While it’s true that an international adoption costs an insane amount of cash, a majority of Holt’s income comes from donations. This is not to defend the current paradigm of cost but to illustrate a larger picture of Holt’s revenue streams and expenditures. These moneys fund staff salaries that make possible international programs that address root causes of child relinquishment and aid in the development of more robust post-adoption services.

It takes money to run any business, but when you boil it down, I think the real issue around money in international adoption revolves in some way around two points: (1) The ethical implications of paying money for the custody of a child and (2) the seeming perpetuity of our industry. We need money to create services to serve the people who exist because of our work. These are big issues that warrant deep critique and real answers. However, the philosophical nature of these issues makes them more difficult to address than an adjustment to a budgetary line item or a 2014 quarter one projection. To critically address these philosophies, a conversation needs to take place between the stakeholders in adoption. This conversation will take time, persistence and patience, but it is a conversation that’s beginning to happen in the Holt office, and we’re hoping to start engaging other parties.

Philosophic and esoteric issues aside, contrary to popular belief, the presence of adoption fees in our system does not prevent changes that may benefit adoptees. I would argue that ten years ago, one could make a case that adoptive parents held programs hostage with adoption fees, essentially bending agencies to their will in order to retain their partnership and fees. But the evolution of international adoption over the past decade has brought drastic changes in child profiles, wait times and costs, which have forced agencies to redefine how they operate and how they’re funded. These changes have unintentionally forced the industry to learn how to wean their reliance on adoption fees, which in turn affects programmatic priorities.

Another big critique of agencies, specifically Holt, revolves around records and files. In this case, it’s important to understand the distinction between Holt International Children’s Services (me) and Holt Children’s Services of Korea (Holt Korea). Despite nearly identical names and the same founder, we have been two separate, autonomous agencies since the late ‘70s, each with its own board of directors, management, budget and bylaws. Holt Korea operates independently with no managerial control from Holt International. Their practices involving disclosure of records is at their discretion and utilize their own policies and cultural expertise. Holt International’s policy on records for adoptees is simple: whatever adoptee material we have in our vault is yours if you want it. Period. Your adoptive parents were given all the information we had upon your adoption, so if they’ve kept good records, we’ll have nothing new.

Where confusion occurs is when Holt Korea makes independent decisions about what they disclose regarding birth parent information and relinquishment history. At times, Holt Korea will have more information than we have in our files, and it’s at their discretion to deem information too culturally sensitive to disclose. We’ve worked very closely with Holt Korea to keep them informed on current adoptee trends and needs, and we’ve seen tremendous change in their practice regarding record disclosure over recent years. Where they used to exhibit a paternal behavior, protecting the adoptee from difficult information like abandonment, rape or a perceived mental illness, they now freely exchange this information with the caveat that the U.S. agencies will provide the necessary emotional support for the adoptee. Holt Korea still keeps the identity of birth parents confidential unless they can obtain written consent to release their information. It’s a tricky privacy issue that’s inherent in closed adoptions, but in the end, I’m inclined to agree with Holt Korea’s policy. The issue is simple and complex at the same time: adoptees deserve to know who their parents are and parents deserve their right to privacy.

In the end, maybe I am an adoptee sellout who’s drank the agency Kool-Aid; I don’t know. When you work in one place for almost nine years, things start to blend together. When I was 26 years old, the problems were clear and the solutions were simple. As time has passed, I’ve realized the problems are more complicated than I once thought, and the solutions seem nearly impossible. However, what continues to motivate me has remained unchanged. I know that when I left home for college, I was dreadfully unprepared for what lay beyond the confines of my small town in Iowa. I had no idea that most Asians had Asian parents. I had no idea that everyone would assume my English was broken. I had no idea that my birth parents may have wanted to keep me. But most tragically, I had no idea there were others out there like me. Holt gives me an opportunity to prevent experiences like mine on a scale that would be difficult to achieve independently.

Because of my job, I’m able to help educate thousands of parents so their children won’t be as unprepared as I was. I’m able to inform thousands of young adoptees that their voices are valuable and part of a larger collective. I’m able to share adoptee stories and narratives with industry leaders who desperately seek our guidance. And while I’m not able to bask in the best of both worlds, maybe working here will help me conceptualize a third option I haven’t thought of or seen yet. Holt isn’t without its flaws, but the people I work with are good people who want what’s best for children. And while Holt’s definition of children has been myopic at times, they are beginning to understand that it encompasses an entire population they’re responsible for creating. I work at Holt because I believe a more balanced approach to adoption is both possible and necessary, and this is the place to make it happen.

~ Steve Kalb